Aboriginal Art


Aboriginal art is as old as the aboriginal occupation of the Australian continent and as such it is at least 40,000 years old. Apart from commercial considerations, the art of the aboriginal people has been an important means of preserving the beautiful cultural heritage of the Aboriginal people. 

 Indeed, Aboriginal mythology contends that in the the beginning the Ancestral Beings rose from the folds of the earth and stretching up to the scorching sun they called, "I am!" As each Ancestor sang out their name, "I am Snake", "I am Honey Ant", they created the most sacred of their songs. Slowly they began to move across the barren land naming all things and thus bringing them into being. Their words forming verses as the Ancestors walked about, they sang mountains, rivers and deserts into existence. Wherever they went, their songs remained, creating a web of songlines over the Country. As they travelled the Ancestors hunted, ate, made love, sang and danced leaving a trail of Dreaming along the songlines. Finally at the end of their journey the Ancestral Beings sang 'back into' the earth where they can be seen as land formations, sleeping. 

There are many different facets of Aboriginal art, from  painting, sculpture, ceremony and dance, to the making of body ornaments, carved utensils,  body painting, feather work and fibre art and spun or woven articles for everyday use.

All these arts form a living tradition that has been passed down through the generations from the earliest times. This web site will focus primarily on the more well known art forms such as rock art and painting.

 Aboriginal rock art is generally regarded as one of the oldest forms of aboriginal art being more than 40,000 years old, a time span five times greater than the age of the Egyptian pyramids.  Rock art gives us descriptive information about social activities, material culture, economy, environmental change, and myth and religion.  

In many cases it is often difficult to identify the subject of the painting due to the interpretation of the artist.  In some cases the images can also be distorted from reality due to religious beliefs making it difficult to tell if the subject matter is a real human figure or a mythological being. Interestingly, in the Kimberley region, Aborigines claim that the oldest rock art, the Bradshaw paintings, were made by the birds that pecked the rocks until their beaks bled and painted the images with their tail feathers.  

Painting of a Tasmanian tiger at Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia.
Water has washed away the back of the figure.

The ancestral creators can be found on rock walls from the huge mouthless Wandjina figures of the Kimberley east to the giant Gangi Nganang of Keep River National Park to the large creation figures of the Victoria River. In Western Arnhem, Aborigines distinguish between the oldest rock art known as Mimi Art, younger images of the ancestor beings when they entered the landscape, and more recent pictures created by their people. Aborigines maintain that that the Mimi people inhabited the land before the Rainbow Serpent created the Aborigines. The Mimi people painted small dynamic images, taught the Aborigines how to paint, hunt, sing, dance, and talk, and then became spirit beings.

Wandjina art site, Kimberley, Western Australia


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Archeologists have placed the many styles in a chronological sequence delineated by environmental changes and historic events. In western Arnhem, archeologists recognize three periods: Pre-Estuarine (drier climate, extinct animals like thylacine), Estuarine (rising sea levels, marine fauna like barramundi and salt water crocodiles, Rainbow Serpent), and Freshwater (freshwater fauna like magpie geese, goose feather adornment). Images of freshwater fauna showing internal anatomy appeared in the last 3,000 years. More recent pictures record contact with Macassans and later Europeans (e.g., boats, guns). Likewise, there are material changes as boomerangs are replaced by composite spears and broad spearthrowers, which, in turn, are replaced by long spear-throwers.

An Extract from Jane's Oceania Home Page Newsletter for December 2008

The discovery of spectacular treasure-trove of Aboriginal rock art at Dullard in the Wellington Range, Anthem Land in outback Australia is set to rewrite the history of Australia. In a find that has stunned archaeologists and anthropologists, a vast wall of about 1500 paintings chronicles the history of Aboriginal contact with outsiders, from Macassar prows and European sailing ships to 19th-century steamships and a World War II battleship.

Alongside exquisite rock art more than 15,000 years old are paintings that capture some of the 19th and 20th centuries' most important technological innovations - a biplane, bicycle, car and rifle - as well as portraits of church ministers, sea captains and traders. This indigenous version of a history book rivals anything similar in the world and holds the key to Australia's ancient and modern history

Contrary to the popular view that indigenous Australians were isolated on their island continent, waves of other seafaring visitors arrived long before British settlement. For hundreds of years there may have been an export economy in northern Australia driven by the Chinese appetite for trepang, or sea cucumber. While it has long been known that Manassas traded with Aboriginal people, the accepted date for this was in the early 18th century - this discovery suggests that it may have begun centuries earlier.

The rock art dismantles the popular identity of Australia being a nation first visited by the British and it goes against the idea of the Bicentennial and convicts. Apart from conducting the first full recording of the Djulirri art, researchers have also discovered thousands of other rock paintings previously unknown to science

This important discovery certainly elevates the importance of Aboriginal art to a much higher level. It not only records the spiritualism of the aboriginal people but also can provide a much broader historical perspective on the interaction between the aboriginal community and other societies. The importance of this find cannot be underestimated and there is no doubt that urgent government attention is required to ensure that the find is protected from degrading by tourism and mining interests.

Aboriginal painting has also evolved in a similar manner with many different styles being evident. The first painting below is by artist Jabaljarri of the Jawoyn tribe and is in the 'dot' style used by the Aboriginal artist of Central Australia. The painting tells the story of people travelling to a meeting to learn about setting up their own businesses. The meaning of various symbols used on the painting is also explained under the main painting, below. 

Meeting place

The worldwide acceptance and the commercial value of Aboriginal art can be appreciated in the context of the following extract from Jane's Oceania Home Page Newsletter dated 5th July 2006.


The Musee du quai Branly in Paris, next to the Eiffel Tower on the Seine, is an impressive building made even more so by the integration into its visionary architecture, the indigenous art of the Australian Aboriginal people. The art is produced by eight different aboriginal art communities across Australia and reflects the spiritualism of a rich art form that has its origins on the wall of a cave possibly as early as 40,000 years ago.

Indeed, the unfolding history of Aboriginal art is encoded in the architecture of this creative building. From its early beginnings on an ancient cave wall, aboriginal art has continuously shifted shape. From the x-ray styles of ancient Arnhem land to colonial-era paintings on bark to Albert Namatjira's mid-century water-colours to contemporary Aboriginal art, we now have an industry described as a cultural treasure which generates an income of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. In doing so, the work of talented Aboriginal artists is providing much needed funds to purchase medical equipment for Aboriginal communities.

It is perhaps not surprising that France, one of the most cultured of Western nations, should embrace the beautiful and ancient art forms of the Aboriginal people. Indeed, French fascination with Australia's indigenous culture began when Napoleon sent scientific voyages to the South Pacific.

For a little further information on Aboriginal mythology and art, you are invited to visit the following Web site:

One would have to suspect that there is a message here for the many talented artists throughout the Pacific region. Certainly, our indigenous art has considerable cultural and artistic merit as well as financial worth. In this respect, the intellectual copyright should remain with our people and the financial rewards should, hopefully, in the longer term, provide appropriate benefits to our Oceania communities.


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Australian Aboriginal Anthropology

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